Now That You Have a Sales Process, Never Mind

dismantleIt’s amazing what Harvard Business Review will print on their pages when it comes to the subject of sales.  This post marks the 6th time that I have strongly felt the need to question an article appearing on their pages.  The November 2013 issue featured an article titled Dismantling the Sales Machine.

Here’s the premise:  Companies that have been rigorously enforcing sales process should stop doing so because it is resulting in longer sales cycles, decreased conversion rates, unreliable forecasts and depressed margins.  So they say.  Here are some of the many problems with their premise:

  • Their survey data is limited to 2,500 salespeople at 30 member companies.
  • It was a survey!
  • Their member companies are big companies.  Most of what happens when they sell stuff doesn’t apply to small and mid-market companies.
  • As recently as April of 2013, Objective Management Group’s (OMG) data on 1831615 salespeople overall, and 85,000 from the past 12 months, showed that 91% of the companies did not have a formal, structured sales process in place.  In other words, lack of sales process (typical since I entered the sales development space in 1985) has not changed at all!
  • They may have accurately identified the effects (sales cycle, conversion ratios, forecasts and margins), but missed the boat on cause.  Those are the exact same issues we have identified in the 10,000 companies whose sales forces we have evaluated – the companies where 91% did not have sales processes!

Based on my 28 years of hands-on sales consulting and training experience, along with the data we have accumulated at OMG over the past 23 years, I can report this to you:

If the executives from the 30 companies in the survey have any similarity at all with the executives I have spoken with from thousands of companies, then they only believe they have a sales process, they think their salespeople are following it and they think that sales management is holding them accountable.

The reality is they only think it.  5 Steps don’t make a process.  7 steps don’t make a process either.  Let me give you an example:

In 2005, I wrote Baseline Selling and it contains both the Baseline Selling sales process and the Baseline Selling sales methodology.  [The difference between sales process and sales methodology]

All you need to know about the generic form of the Baseline Selling process is that there are 4 stages consisting of steps and milestones:

  • Reaching 1st
  • Reaching 2nd
  • Reaching 3rd
  • Running Home

To put things in context, let’s use a couple of the other well-known selling brands:

  • SPIN Selling – Most people think it’s a process, but it’s a methodology and SPIN, in its entirety, would fit between 1st and 2nd base in Baseline Selling.
  • Strategic Selling would fit between 2nd and 3rd base and would also be used in the on-deck circle in Baseline Selling.
  • Sandler is a methodology with some milestones that would appear in 3 of the 4 base paths.

None of the 3 are complete sales processes.

I have seen dozens of so-called corporate sales processes.  Nearly all of them would have steps that would belong between Home and 1st Base, and then between 3rd Base and Home, skipping all of the steps/milestones that must occur between 1st and 2nd, and between 2nd and 3rd.

I’ve seen processes that were so terribly sequenced that it was nearly impossible for salespeople to gain traction.  The point is that having a process is not the same as having an effective process and, in most cases, is no more effective than having no process at all.

The authors made a recommendation that I believe was even more flawed than their data and conclusions.  They suggest giving salespeople flexibility to use a judgment-focused, rather than process-focused approach.  Well, according to the data on 1831615 salespeople, 91% of whom were already selling by the seat of their pants (aka best judgment), we could expect them to have trouble with sales cycles, conversions, forecasting reliability and margins.  Sound familiar?

If the authors want to identify the cause of those 4 effects, they should look no further than sales management, 82% of whom aren’t able to coach their weak salespeople to sell more consultatively – the other reason for the 4 effects.  Proof of their ineffective coaching can be found on page 4 of the longer than necessary article where examples of questions that used to be asked during pipeline reviews are revealed.  Those aren’t sales coaching questions, those are tick marks in the CRM system!

Those same big company, weak salespeople are getting their lunches handed to them by the better trained, more motivated sales forces of smaller and mid-market companies that are getting the help they need to customize and implement formal, structured sales processes, train their sales managers to coach and train their salespeople to sell consultatively.

Surveys are fun.  They tell you what people think.  Science is better.  It tells you what is really taking place and why.  Science asks questions.  Surveys report answers, allowing survey authors to jump to conclusions that may not be applicable outside of the survey population.

What are your thoughts?